April 13, 2020

Durbin, Duckworth, other Dem senators: End ‘ambiguity’ over jobless benefits for gig workers

Source: Chicago Sun-Times


A group of Democratic senators, including Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, implored Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia on Monday to “eliminate ambiguity” and make sure self-employed gig workers qualify for newly available COVID-19 jobless benefits.

The letter, signed by 32 Democratic senators, notes part of the guidance issued by the Labor Department dealing with eligibility “appear narrow or ambiguous, which could make states think they need to exclude workers who Congress clearly intended to receive unemployment compensation through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.”

“While we believe that such workers are covered by the text of the law, we appreciate the Department’s action to eliminate ambiguity and ensure these workers receive benefits,” they added.

A package of unprecedented enhanced and extended unemployment benefits are in the emergency $2.2 trillion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — known as the CARES Act — signed into law March 27.

The CARES Act created the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, known as PUA. The Labor Department has the job of writing rules for states on executing the new program.

The senators say the guidance the Labor Department put out runs the risk of denying benefits to people Republicans and Democrats in Congress and President Trump intended to give.

To avoid confusion, the senators told Scalia in their letter, the Labor Department “must clarify that an independent contractor who is unable to work and forced to suspend work activities because there is reduced demand for their services also qualifies for PUA benefits. Many independent contractors have seen demand for their services dry up as a direct result of COVID-19. In the example of a ride-share driver, a driver should be able to claim PUA when they are forced to suspend their work because there are too few customers seeking rides.”

“For an independent contractor, losing many or all of their customers overnight is analogous to an employee being laid off by an employer, or, as the Department’s guidance notes, their “place of employment” being closed. Congress created the PUA program with the intent to cover workers like independent contractors and gig workers who may not have traditional employment relationships, but who have suddenly lost their livelihoods during this time of crisis. We believe that that the CARES Act definitively covers such workers, and the Department should clarify its guidance to reflect this.”

On Sunday, the Pritzker administration sounded the alarm over attempts by President Donald Trump’s Labor Department to narrow the ability of self-employed workers, independent contractors, and gig workers to qualify for COVID-19 jobless benefits.

A statement from the Democratic senators said “the senators are requesting the Department of Labor clarify its guidance pertaining to workers who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 without receiving a test, workers with COVID-19 who take time off of work, workers without child care options in summer months, workers unable to get to work due to stay-at-home orders, workers with underlying health conditions like asthma, and self-employed workers like gig workers who are unable to work due to plummeting demand for their services.”

Labor Secretary Scalia is a graduate of the University of Chicago law school and is the son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

By:  Kimmy Yam